A close friend of mine, while watching me put in contacts one morning, once claimed to have cured his nearsightedness by force of will.
“I told myself I did not need glasses anymore and I stopped wearing them,” he said. “My eyesight just improved.”
“That’s fascinating,” I said, thinking, Try not to sound like an asshole, but do not let him drive.
I tried some method of this myself, but just not wearing my glasses for most of my teenaged life. This goes some way towards explaining 1) why I’m squinting in about 90% of the pictures taken of me in high school and 2) why I always sat in the front row in all classes (except for math, where I was afraid I would be called on, and thus sat toward the back, and therefore couldn’t see the blackboard or the overhead, and as a result never really learned math and the wheel keeps on spinning).
I saw things clearly as a child. My relative blindness was a product of early adolescence that may or may not have resulted from me (according to one ancient childhood babysitter) trying to read books other than the bible by the light of the streetlamps outside my bedroom window after bedtime, or (according to another) watching hours of afterschool MTV with my head approximately 12 inches from the tv screen when I should be practicing scales or learning to cross stitch or acting like a well-brought-up young lady or some other lame shit that Sheila E. would never concern herself with
My parents were not so narrow-minded. When Mom took me to the eye-doctor in the ninth grade, her attitude was basically, “Almost everyone else in the family is blind as a bat, how exactly did you think you’d escape this fate, four eyes?” Which, okay, fair point, except that Mom didn’t wear glasses. Her eyesight was pretty great, though she had a pair of delicate looking, gold framed, John Lennon-ish reading glasses she wore to do the fine work on paintings. She kept them with her tackle box of watercolors in a shiny cloth covered case printed with what looked like an aquatic landscape from a psychedelic swamp. I loved those glasses when I was a little kid. I wore them around the house—the prescription being so mild as to be almost non-existent—and imagined I looked smart and interesting. I once went so far as actually taking them to school in the fourth grade, where I pulled the bespectacled boy I had a crush on behind one of the rolling cubbies the class used for coat storage. “My eyesight is failing,” I said to him. “And soon I may be as blind as Stevie Wonder or the boring sister on ‘Little House on the Prairie.’ For now, though, I have to wear these.” I pulled out Mom’s specs with a dramatic flourish.
I’d hoped this might inspire some solidarity and bring us together in triumphant romance. Instead he stared at me, mystified.
“Why should I care?”
A valid point that left me feeling stung and embarrassed. “Whatever,” I said and put them back in the bag, preemptively concerned about losing my mother’s glasses and having to explain how I’d lost them. “I was lying,” I said. “Unlike you, I can see just fine.”
He then backed away and told me I was weird.
I didn’t tell him that he was an asshole and a disappointment and I wouldn’t be at all sad when his family moved to Massachusetts at the end of the year because I was ten and I didn’t know that last bit yet. I still had a crush. I still coveted his glasses.
But much as is the case when you’re young and envy your friends their braces, their periods, their divorced parents, their romantically broken homes, and mental health issues, it’s different when those things become your own shit. By ninth grade, it had become clear that myopia wasn’t just a handy metaphor for my adolescent self-absorption. I agreed to an eye appointment, was shocked to discover that I could not read the bottom lines of letters on the eye chart. Not even with squinting. And so I walked out of the doctor’s office, glasses in hand, roundish, gold framed, John Lennon-ish, with arms that curled all the way over the ear, which I thought might make me look like a poet, but probably just made me look like I was into folk music and celibacy.
I wore them into Civics class and took my seat, across the U-shaped desk formation from the most beautiful boy in my school. He’d recently shaved off his glossy chin grazing skater hair to the collective disappointment of most of the ninth grade. I risked a gander at his newly unobstructed face with my newly recovered 20/20 vision and discovered that his skin was remarkably clear for a person immersed in puberty and his eyelashes were thick and dark and his eyes. Well, what would one call that color exactly? Mahogany? Mink? Looking right back at me, puzzled and slightly put out? I looked away, took my glasses off and, blushing, went back to squinting at the Articles of Confederation outline on the blackboard. Life, I decided, was more manageable with less clarity. I slid my glasses case into my backpack, where it stayed, more or less, for the next seven years.
I’d pull them out occasionally. In dark theaters when no one was looking. My initial driving test. But mostly I didn’t. So I couldn’t see plays—movies were a little better, because they were bigger—and that was ironic because I was a theater kid. I could not have told you what any of the people in any of the bands I saw looked like. I couldn’t see televisions, even my television. I avoided foreign films. I kept my desk chair inches from my computer screen. I waved back at anyone who looked to be waving at me from across the quad. I asked airline workers to verify departure gate information. I hated having to order off menus on signs. And yes, I would love to hear about the specials because I sure as shit couldn’t see the board. I have had a Corrective Lenses restriction on my drivers license since I received my first drivers license, though I did not ever actually wear glasses to drive, a fact that went unnoticed by every single cop that pulled me over between 1992 and 1997. The presumption must have been that I wore contacts, because the idea of someone driving blind was simply incomprehensible. But I was. I drove up and down the east coast and couldn’t see exit signs until I was right up on them. I used to dread detours for fear I wouldn’t know where I was going. I couldn’t read the theater marquee from the road or the No Vacancy sign redlighting the motel parking lot. Sometimes I couldn’t see the driveway or the road or the speed bump or the curb, especially at night. It is an absolute fucking miracle I did not hit a deer or a dog or a human being on a bicycle.
And why was this? I wasn’t exceptionally vain. In fact I used to brag about my relative lack of vanity as I mocked the girls who spent hours on their hair or their make-up or their stupid trendy clothes that all looked the same, man. And even if I were, I had parents that would have coughed up for contact lenses (they did for my little sister from the time she was nine). The honest answer is that I do not know why I didn’t wear my glasses. I just didn’t wear them. Somewhere along the line they broke and then broke again and I didn’t repair them and most of the time I had no idea where they were anyway.
I don’t recall the precise order of events that led to me finally replacing and wearing my glasses. There was the near crash with the friend from up top, who’d yet to willpower himself out of his own poor vision. One spring night, we were driving back from a punk rock show in the town where I now live. I was twenty years old and sober save for coffee and about two dozen cigarettes. It was about 2am when I turned too early, ran through a grassy median and very nearly crashed us through into the bridge rail of the overpass because I could not see the interstate ramp. My friend screamed. My roommate jerked the wheel and I didn’t total the car or kill anyone.
I pulled off the road and sat for a moment in the shoulder, breathing deeply, while rightfully barraged by a chorus of what the fuck, Alison? I think I told them that I wasn’t paying attention. That I just zoned out, because I realized that sounded less stupid than you guys don’t know this because I haven’t worn my glasses the whole time that we’ve been friends, but I can’t see worth a shit. Admitting that would make me sound shallow and vain and inauthentic and I was obsessed with authenticity and then living with a girl who already thought I was a poser and already knew I was a liar. Better they think I was a flake, a scatterbrain, a reckless daydreamer
In fact, it wouldn’t be until after she moved out that I came home for a visit and went back to the same eye doctor I ‘d last seen at fourteen. He clucked as he wrote my prescription, noting that my vision had gotten worse in the intervening years. I felt shamed and knew I deserved it. The day I picked up my glasses I put them on and remembered that texture exists in the world and sharp edges are a thing outside of post-punk songs and that maybe clarity was not the enemy after all and whoa, subtitles, those sure are handy!
None of my friends said anything about it. And I didn’t say anything about it because I felt like an idiot for spending seven years of my life in a bleary, indeterminate world, where everything was a little hazy save the words in the books I read and those I scrawled out on a page less than a foot from my nose (nearsighted, remember?). And that I did so for no reason at all, making my life infinitely more uncomfortable, dissatisfying, difficult, self-destructive and dangerous than it had to be.
You’ll be pointing out now that the glasses thing sounds like some kind of metaphor for my young life. I probably wouldn’t, because it’s almost too on the nose (no pun intended). People in my life, repeatedly in life, have looked at me with expressions of great sadness and vague incomprehension, observing Damn, you really make things way more difficult than they need to be. You know that right?
And yeah, I totally see their point.